Two 16-year-old Palisade High School students — Maya McDaniel and Charlotte Allen — thanked school board members at the Feb. 15 Mesa County Valley School District 51 Board of Education meeting for not firing school Superintendent Diana Sirko, Assistant Superintendent Brian Hill, and the director of equity and inclusion, Tracy Gallegos.

The school board addressed “rumors” of firings in a statement following a Feb. 7 executive session, saying the board had no intention of firing anyone, but was simply reviewing contracts of three top administrators.

Hundreds of Sirko, Hill and Gallegos supporters rallied outside two executive sessions the board held in February to review the three contracts. Many expected that Mesa County’s new conservative majority school board bloc intended to follow in Douglas County’s footsteps — that county’s newly elected conservative school board fired its superintendent without cause earlier this month. (Hill has been hired to replace Sirko when she retires in June.)

Mesa County resident Cindy Ficklin, a former educator and a current Grand Junction real estate agent, posted a message on social media that may have fueled such assumptions. The post — which has since been deleted — said, “ATTENTION to all superintendents across the country, WE REALLY ARE taking our schools back!! We did it in 9 school districts across Colorado! Including this one in Douglas County. To the superintendents: keep on advocating for masking and teaching CRT anti-Americanism and Marxism in our schools — and we will fire your ass!”

Ficklin took down her post because it was misconstrued as talking about Mesa County, which wasn’t the case, she said in an interview.

“Across the country the next step is to decide if superintendents will act in accordance with new conservative school board missions or not. If not, those superintendents — like Douglas County — will likely find themselves out of a job,” Ficklin said. “Brian Hill is trying to work with our new conservative School Board and that’s what we want.”

Ficklin applied last year for the superintendent position when Sirko announced she would retire in 2022. Several people who attended the recent rallies in support of the three administrators speculated that the new board wanted to replace Hill with Ficklin. However, Ficklin said she doesn’t want the job.

“I’m not interested now,” she said. “I don’t think Brian Hill needs to be replaced.”

Building bridges

Conservative school boards have gone after school leadership nationwide for pandemic masking policies and the perceived teaching of critical race theory. Both “CTR” and the term “equity” have become buzz words that have riled up conservative community members.

Colorado Newsline reached out to Gallegos, the equity and inclusion director, in Mesa County to learn the meaning of, and need for, equity in the schools. Newsline also interviewed four Palisade High School students about their involvement with their student-led Equity Council.

“Equity and inclusion programs are really about bringing opportunities and access and support to all students,” said Gallegos, who prior to his current position, was regional director for Migrant Education Program, with an office in Grand Junction. “A lot of kids walk through our doors and are not where they need to be,” as a result of things not in their control.

For example, “I read to my children — even in the womb,” he said. “So, they have that solid foundation. Some kids don’t have that. Their parents don’t like to read. Or, they don’t have books, or there’s no dedicated reading time with parents. Some children have significant advantages so we can’t teach the same.”

Educational experts say it’s necessary to gain cultural proficiency to reach kids who come from impoverished families, are from a different culture, or otherwise are outside the mainstream culture. Educators need to understand their students better so they can connect with them, Gallegos said.

Also, it’s good for teachers to understand their own biases, their own experiences, he added.

Gallegos serves kids who use various student services such as special education, mental health, and migrant education. He meets with district leadership to help plan professional learning opportunities, works with community partners, is involved with strategic planning approved by the Board of Education, works with human resources on diversity hiring and retention goals, and he teaches evening and summer classes for teachers to learn about classroom management and how to build bridges with different cultures within a classroom.

“We want everyone to feel valued,” he said.

However, terms like “cultural proficiency” and “equity” have been scrutinized by some community members who allege something more nefarious is occurring than leveling the current learning field.

Ficklin, who talked with Newsline regarding her above-mentioned post, said, “Teachers have taught kids that they should feel ashamed for their white skins. We’ve had a couple of teachers that have taught that. It’s why we flipped the school board.”

However, Ficklin declined to give names of teachers who allegedly teach kids to feel guilty, nor would Ficklin divulge the names of families accusing them of doing so.

Gallegos said he’s heard “that rhetoric” and that it’s been used strategically to criticize public education. It’s not the intention of educators to make anyone feel guilty, he said.

“If you look at state standards it’s our professional responsibility to help students understand accurately what happened in our own and the world’s history,” he said. “It’s not to make kids with European ancestry feel guilty. But to help them understand mistakes we made as a younger nation so as not to repeat mistakes.

“Now we’re to the point of seeing laws passed nationwide where schools are instructed to not teach history — that’s scary.”

Student-led Equity Council

McDaniel and Allen, along with fellow Equity Council members Mia De Villegas-Decker, 16, and Kiera Stephen, 15, are enrolled in the district’s rigorous international baccalaureate degree program at Palisade High School. As members of the equity club’s executive council, the girls meet two or three times a week to talk and plan actions promoting equity for all students. Thanks to their efforts there’s now a gender-neutral bathroom on campus, making some students feel safer.

“I was overwhelmed by the blatant racism of my classmates,” McDaniel said. “I was surprised it existed at the high school. People here have to pretend to be straight (if they’re not). I hear a lot of slurs hurled at people in the hallways.”

De Villegas-Decker said she was often told by middle-school classmates that she couldn’t do anything because of her race and the fact she’s a girl.

“I was also told to go back to Mexico hundreds of times — especially during 2016” — even though her family is not from Mexico. Her clinical psychiatrist father is originally from Bolivia, and her mother, a paralegal, is from Nicaragua.

Stephen moved with her family to Grand Junction from Eagle County just before her freshman year. She said she was surprised to witness “blatant homophobia and racism” at the high school.

“To be honest, I didn’t feel completely safe here,” she said.

Stephen said she learned about the Equity Council and joined the club during her sophomore year.

“It felt good doing something about the negativity, racism, homophobia I felt coming in,” she said.

Stephen said she has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and has often been called “retard” and other derogatory names at school.

“One of our goals (of the Equity Council) is to create a more equitable learning environment for people with learning disabilities,” said Allen.

McDaniel said she found in both her middle and high schools that it is socially acceptable to mock anyone with disabilities.

“At Palisade High School, kids do the Donald Trump thing (with hand gestures and belittling comments) mocking people with disabilities,” McDaniel said. “It took me off guard.”

The club intends to address any form of inequity that causes students harm, she said. Gallegos said adults can start by setting a good example.

“I really do think everyone can agree we can get better serving our kids,” he said. “Our kids have gone through a lot in the past few years and we really need the adults to come together and model love and compassion so they’ll know everyone is supporting them — so they can start learning. When adults are so divided they don’t feel safe to be learners. We need to model how to act. I don’t think that’s controversial.”

And yet, Gallegos has received numerous threats since he started the job in 2021. As a result, his wife has experienced difficulty sleeping, and his children have been targeted with false claims on social media.

“I’ve been in education a long time and I’ve never had any kind of negativity directed towards me,” he said. “When people try to discredit you and what you do, and put your family down it’s a whole different kind of stress.”

“Critics of ‘equity’ need to realize we’re a public school,” he said. “We are mindful in creating an inclusive environment where kids feel safe. It benefits all the kids to have an overall safe atmosphere.”

This article originally appeared in Colorado Newsline, is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: [email protected]. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.